What’s it like to be homeless? A survey aims to find out

Larry Dunn stood near the corner of 7th and San Julian, cigar in hand. He was part of a small, impatient crowd that had formed on the street corner.

Dunn lives on Skid Row, and he and the others were waiting for their turn to participate in a survey of people experiencing homelessness.

Skid Row resident Larry Dunn and talks to surveyor Lynette Jenkins.

The survey was a kind of addendum to the annual homeless count, in which thousands volunteers canvass the county, counting their communities’ homeless populations. Last year, the number came in just under 47,000. The statistic is vitally important to forming homeless policy – the federal government uses it to decide which programs are working, and how much money they should get.

But the count itself can only tell researchers and officials how many people are experiencing homelessness, not who they are. The ‘who’ is up to surveyors who head out into the streets in the weeks after the count, armed with tablets, gift card incentives, and a battery of questions.

Dunn was one of several Skid Row residents who surveyor Lynette Jenkins spoke to that day. And she said doing the interviews had been “very informative”.

“When you’re asking these questions that really hold meaning for them, they’re glad someone is asking those questions, because normally, they’re not getting asked,” she said.

“So they don’t have anywhere to vent, and usually, they feel inappropriate in their environment, so they feel reticent about giving those type of answers. So I pull them to the side and make sure their information is confidential.”

The questions start out general – age, living situation, initials – but they quickly get personal, and intimate.

“Which of the following best represents your sexual orientation,” Jenkins began. “Are you straight, gay, bisexual –”

“Straighter than a straight razor baby,” said Dunn, taking a drag of his cigar.

The information the surveyors gather – like sexual orientation and gender identity – help government agencies and organizations identify trends and tailor services for people experiencing homelessness.

“It’s very important to get an understanding of changes in the homeless population,” said USC associate professor Karen Lincoln, who helped lead the demographic survey for this year’s homeless count.

USC professor Karen Lincoln (right) and social worker Brian Gaines (center, with glasses) at the demographic survey’s “command center” in Skid Row.

Services could only be effective if they addressed the needs of the homeless population, Lincoln said. And the only way to find out what people need was to ask.

Lincoln’s research focus is aging, so she was particularly interested in understanding what it means to grow old on the street.

“Older homeless people are increasing,” she said. “And it’s really important to be able to capture, not just the number of older adults, but the profile of older adults.”

They had put new questions about Alzheimer’s disease and nursing homes on this year’s survey, she said.

That’s not all that was new this year. Last year’s survey tracked a spike in the number of homeless women – a 55 percent increase since 2013. In response, there was a funding boost for homeless women’s services, and there are new questions on this year’s survey about domestic and sexual abuse.

Surveyor Stephen Pantola and Skid Row resident Jackie.

As important as those questions are, they can also be difficult to ask. Another surveyor, Stephen Pantola, interviewed a woman named Jackie, who’s in her fifties and has some health issues, including renal failure. About two minutes into the interview, Pantola asked her about where she was living.

“Last night, I walked all last night because I didn’t have anywhere to go or sleep,” she said, sniffling and beginning to cry.

In response to the new set of questions about domestic violence and abuse, Jackie said she had experienced both; that she had been sexually abused both by partners and by her stepfather.

“It’s like you don’t have rights to say no for sex around here,” said Jackie. “They treat you like trash, the men around here. They use you. They catch you when you’re vulnerable.”

Pantola hadn’t asked another question, but Jackie kept talking anyway. She carries a hammer in the streets, she told him; sometimes pepper spray.

That impulse – to share unsolicited intimate information – is relatively common, according to Brian Gaines, a social worker and the survey’s project manager. And it meant that the interviews could take a big emotional toll on the surveyors, he said.

“It’s a little hard for the interviewers, because they walk away feeling like, ‘they’ve shared with me that they’re hungry, and that they need this and they need that, and I wasn’t able to do a whole lot for them.’”

It can also be emotionally difficult – and revelatory – just to spend time in Skid Row or in other homeless communities across the county.

Just before I spoke to Gaines on that street corner downtown, the police had closed off another nearby street – to “clean” it – temporarily displacing everyone who had set up tents there. Some of the people on the street were elderly, sick, or both. They couldn’t move quickly enough to get their belongings together and get off the street, so their things were being removed by police.

It was a good example of why aging on the street might be especially difficult, and why surveying the homeless population was so important, Lincoln said. The best way to find out how to help people was to try to get a glimpse into what life was like for them, and listen to the unsolicited stories that researchers might not have even thought to ask for.

Results from the survey, and a study by Lincoln on older homeless people, will be made public later this spring.